As the Trams Project falls apart: Some Thoughts on Improving Edinburgh’s Cycling Facilities.

With the resignation of Mandy Haeburn-Little, Director of Communications and Customer Services for Transport Initiatives Edinburgh – the Council-owned company intended to deliver the project  – a total of six senior personal have now left the project within a month. Little joins the four non-executive directors who left the board at the end of last month and Chief Executive Richard Jeffrey, who resigned on the 19th. This comes alongside a rumoured sidelining of TIE itself. While there is something charming about Edinburgh acquiring yet another unfinished structure (alongside Scotland’s Disgrace and, until recently, Edinburgh’s Old College) the level of disruption and spending required to get here make this a minor note at best.

As most Edinburgh residents will know, the project began some years ago when, in March 2006, the Scottish Parliament approved the plans.  Despite some initial worries over the SNP’s commitment to the project construction has been taking place since 2008 with a completion date scheduled for February 2011.  As you’ve probably noticed, this deadline has been seriously overshot, with even remedial works (to repair Princes Street’s crumbling concrete) have been moved from July to September. In addition, there have been plenty of tram-related misfortunes including an Evening News report of residents requiring permission to clean their windows along the tram route for fear of electrocution and nine people being taken to court for refusing to permit the council to hang tramlines on their homes.

This only adds to the controversy that has dogged the project since it’s inception. The SNP in particular seem to have always hated it, with Salmond coming out against when the first SNP government started in 2007 and Kenny McAskill stating in 2006 that: “For £700m, we could have renewed every bus in the whole of the Lothians with a low- emission, low-boarding, state-of-the-art vehicle and run the entire service in Edinburgh free for seven years.”

At this point the project has spent 80% of the £545 million budget and is nowhere near completion. Nonetheless, there is still disagreement about the way ahead. While there is broad support in the Council for investigating how much the project would cost to scrap, Labour Counciller Ewan Aitken has suggested that giving up on the trams  might do “…even more damage to Edinburgh’s reputation that has already been done by this administration.”[1]  Prospects of further funding are also low, as the SNP have stated: “It is the responsibility of TIE and the council to complete the project, on the basis that not a penny more of Government money will be forthcoming”.

The responsibility for this debacle isn’t entirely clear. One member of the SNP, for example, blamed Transport Scotland for ‘dereliction of duty’ in not exercising greater scrutiny of the project. And, naturally, the SNP have received some flak for letting the project go ahead in the first place.

Bilfinger Berger, one of the companies in the consortium granted the contract, have also been subject to criticism. When the Chairman of the Trams project David Mackay stepped down in 2010 he said in an interview:

“There were signs, as there clearly are now, that Bilfinger Berger … was a delinquent contractor who scented a victim, who probably greatly underbid, and who would use the contract to make life extremely difficult for the city. And they have done exactly that.”[2]

There is also a certain amount of ire naturally directed at the Council and TIE for their maladministration, but who was ultimately to blame for the work stoppage that resulted in extensive and costly mediation will hopefully be revealed in time.

Looking towards the future, however, it seems worth considering other ways of improving Edinburgh’s transport system that doesn’t carry quite the same risks of disaster. Specifically, I have the cycle networks in mind.

As oil prices rise and Scotland’s ambitious carbon reduction targets close in, cycling investment is extremely worthwhile. As well as being free of carbon emissions, consuming no petrol and reducing noise and congestion, cycling has considerable health benefits, as numerous studies have found.[3] Walking and cycling have been associated with lower rates of obesity.[4]

Cycling investment is also relatively cheap and very efficient. This is evidenced by a Norwegian study which found that the benefits of investing in cycle networks, such as reduced air and noise pollution, less parking expenditure, improved health and reduced insecurity, were around 4-5 times the costs, making it more beneficial than other investments.[5] This efficiency is supported by a study published in Health Promotion Practice found that, in Nebraska, every $1 of investment in bike/pedestrian trials returned $2.94 medical benefits.[6] The need for investment in the capital is supported by, for example, a ph.d study submitted to the Scottish Transport Studies Group, which found that 52.7% of the recipients in one study said that safety fears prevented them from cycling more often in Edinburgh.[7]

Crucially, such investment already has some public support. In addition to the visible campaign groups like Spokes, the ph.d study cited above found that 48.6% of people supported improving on-road cycle lanes in Edinburgh (as compared to 29.0% who were neutral and only 22.4% who disagreed), with 68% supporting this with regard to off road lanes. While cycling improvement was, in general, low on the list of priorities (with 27% citing it as important) this isn’t surprising when around 50% of households didn’t have a bike. Still, support for this healthy, carbon neutral de-congesting past-time might do something to reduce this. For instance, bike rental policies have become common in many European cities including Copenhagen, Helsinki, Oslo, Stockholm, Barcelona, Paris and Brussels.[8] While Edinburgh has some of the better cycling provision in Scotland, there is still room for improvement, particularly when compared to other European countries.[9]

But will any of this materialize, not just in Edinburgh but in the rest of Scotland? As the website Cycling Edinburgh note, the Scottish Parliament have sent promising signals. In a recent report, the Transport, Infrastructure and Climate Change Committee state: “The Committee believes that active travel has huge potential to benefit the health of the people of Scotland as well as contributing to meeting Scotland’s ambitious climate change targets.”[10] Alongside this, they clearly recognize that improvements to infrastructure are necessary to overcome safety fears related to cycling. However, while several people who submitted evidence to the committee suggested that 10% of the transport budget be spent on investment on this (as compared to the current level of about 1%, or £3.30 per head) this wasn’t met with any clear guarantees from the Minister responsible. While the SNP’s manifesto promised an increase in ‘active transport’ investment in their manifesto and are aiming at 10% of all journeys been taken by bike,[11] the level of resolve is not clear. As the Spokes Campaign points out, the SNP tried to scrap the Cycling, Walking, Safer Streets fund during the last government as well as dropping cycling investment every year until the year before the election. Clearly, this is something where they will have to be held to account.

Looking forward, then, regardless of who turns out to be responsible for the Trams disaster it would be both wise and efficient to move forward by investing more in cycling, especially given the efficiency and relatively low cost. However, despite some promising signs within the government, this is far from guaranteed.

Post-Script: Of course, cycling cannot solve all the transport problems in the city. There are many people who simply aren’t going to change over and, as I was reminded by a friend, there a considerable number of people such as many of the disabled and the elderly who are poorly served by bike transport.


[3] See here for a literature review: Oja et al. Health Benefits of Cycling: a systematic review (Publishd April 18th, 2011) Scandanavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports

[4] Basset, Jr. et al Walking, Cycling, and Obesity Rates in Europe, North America, and Australia (2008) Journal of Physical Activity and Health, Vol. 5 pp. 795-814

[5] Saelensminde, K, Cost-benefit analyses of walking and cycling track networks taking into account insecurity, health effects and external costs of motorized traffic (2004) Transportation Research Part A: Policy and Practice, Vol. 38, No. 8 pp. 593-606

[6] Wang et al. A Cost-Benefit Analysis of Physical Activity Using Bike/Pedestrian Trails  (2005) Health Promotion Practice vol. 6 no. 2 174-179

[8] Noted in de Hartog et al. Do the Health Benefits of Cycling Outweigh the Risks? (2010) Environmental Health Perspectives, Vol. 118, no. 8 pp. 1109-1116. (The answer is yes, in case you were worried, with the benefits being substantially larger.

[9] A discussion of Edinburgh’s facilities and some proposed changes can be found here: http://edinburghnews.scotsman.com/edinburgh/Edinburgh-pedals-to-a-medal.2740580.jp

[11] Studies indicate that the current level of cycling for adults is around 2% regarding journeys to work and education. The number of children who use bikes to get to school is higher, but unclear as it’s enmeshed with walking in the study. Information from Scotland’s People Annual Report: Results from the 2009 Scottish Household Study (2010). Available here: http://www.scotland.gov.uk/Publications/2010/08/25092046/0

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